After the long holiday break, we may be thrilled to have our kids’ days filled again with school and activities, but one sigh of relief brings another sigh of dread: the return to packing lunches.
Some of us may have gotten a welcomed reprieve from lunch packing during the holiday break. Though I am tempted to give cafeteria lunches a go, the tales my second grader tells me of chocolate milk simultaneously served with chocolate rolls as a daily combination raises the hair on the back of my neck, and I immediately run to grab her lunch box from the cabinet.
Unpacking the packaging
Packing lunch for picky eaters and doing it in a timely fashion is no easy feat. Processed foods have made eating “convenient” for us with easy-to-carry, individually wrapped packages that we may be tempted to resort to filling a lunch box with packaged snacks and yogurt tubes.
Considering that the majority of processed foods contain gut irritants such as artificial sweeteners, gums and emulsifiers, it’s no surprise that the patients experiencing tummy troubles are getting younger and younger. Los Angeles-based pediatrician Joel “Gator” Warsh, M.D., reports gut issues as one of the biggest problems facing his young patients today. He takes an integrative approach, assessing the patient as a whole to determine the root of the problem.
“It starts before day one,” Warsh says. “A lot of the chemicals that are in our body can go through to the baby. [It starts with] being aware that our choices matter.
“Our food is not the same food it was 50 years ago,” he says. “We’re not getting nutrients that we once did, and then you combine that with the toxins and the things that we’re spraying on the food… those two things together are causing our kids to get sick.”
He adds that inflammation is the main culprit in overall disease and gut conditions, and notes that turmeric, vitamin C and fish oils or omega-3 fatty acids help lower inflammation in those who are old enough to take supplements.
Ringing in new habits
We carry our eating habits with us throughout our lives, whether it’s what we eat or the environment in which we eat it (in the car or at a dining table with family).
“Preparing food,” Warsh explains, “is the key at the end of the day for the issues that we’re seeing. Even if it’s making your own pizza. We’re not trying to restrict [our kids], we’re trying to create better options for them so they eat healthier food that they like. There’s a cost to the convenience, and that cost is quality.”
Here are some easy swaps for lunch convenience. While it seems like a long march until the end of the school year, the old saying rings in my head, “The days are long, but the years are short.”
- Salmon swap — Swap salmon salad (see recipe below) for tuna to add some variety. This can decrease kids’ intake of mercury while providing a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids.
- BYOY (Bring your own yogurt) — Many flavored yogurts are filled with artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers. Instead, pack a few tablespoons of plain yogurt in a container, drizzle with maple syrup and frozen blueberries. Add a dash of cinnamon for fun.
- No-no nut butters and jellies — The only ingredients in peanut butter should be peanuts and salt. Peanuts are full of oil and certainly don’t need more added, especially when they’re hydrogenated. Likewise, steer clear of jellies that pack a ton of sugar in your kids’ lunch. Apple juice concentrate is a fancy way of saying sugar, but check the label for artificial sweeteners or added sugar and get the one with the lowest sugar content possible.
- Check the bread — Somehow big food companies thought that bread needed to be sweetened, too. Check the ingredient list for sugar, cane syrup or sucralose and choose a 100-percent whole wheat bread without the words “enriched flour” on the label. Any additives we don’t recognize or can’t pronounce should be kicked out of the cart.
- Customize snack size — Make your own snack size. Use your own judgment to dole out what you’re packing, whether it’s almonds or hummus.
- Fruit packing — Some fruits just don’t travel well. Bananas seem to turn black by the time they board the bus and berries get smashed easily. Sliced apples brown, too, but try this trick: Cut and soak sliced apples in a bowl of water (enough to cover) with a teaspoon of white vinegar for 30 seconds. Rinse, pack and voila!
(Takin’ a Break from Tuna) Salmon Salad
4 ounces filet baked salmon, cooled (leftover works best)
1 tablespoon dill, chopped
1 tablespoon red onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon capers, finely diced
2 tablespoons celery, minced
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
With a fork, gently break salmon into flakes. Add remaining ingredients and mix. Serve on bread as a sandwich or with veggies or crackers.